Spitting images

Welcome to South Park

Across the pond, the second half of the 13th season of the iconoclastic cartoon South Park is well under way. And, thanks to a wide range of (yes, probably illegal) streaming websites, UK audiences have also been able to enjoy new episodes covering subjects from this summer's glut of celebrity deaths to America's obsession with bizarrely theatrical wrestling matches.

There was a time when South Park was written off as the foul-mouthed preserve of puerile adolescents. One need only glance at previews for this week's episode (scheduled to air on Friday), which, it seems, will tackle US hysteria about Japanese whale and dolphin hunting, to realise that these days it represents something quite different. Indeed, South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, have in recent years been responsible for some of the sharpest social, political and cultural commentary ever to make it on to American television screens -- a more brazen, far more offensive, altogether funnier Daily Show, if you will.

In an article in the New Statesman a couple years ago, the critic and academic Eric Griffiths argued that Parker and Stone's collaborative friendship is one "that future historians will surely regard as defining an era". So, it's about time that uninitiated readers were introduced to three particularly outstanding episodes of the show. Feel free to praise any personal favourites in the comment box below.

Smug Alert (Season 10, Episode 2): The father of one of the main characters in the show buys a hybrid car because he wants to be "part of the solution and not part of the problem". Realising that his new car positions him somewhat "ahead of the curve", he moves his entire family to San Francisco, a city buried under a cloud of "smug", because of all the "self-satisfied garbage" its populace emits into the air.

About Last Night (Season 12, Episode 12): Broadcast less than a day after Barack Obama was declared winner of the 2008 presidential election, and featuring crowds of inebriated Democrats ("Everything's gonna change!") and suicidal Republicans, this episode hinges on the idea that both parties' campaigns were, in fact, hijacked by an Ocean's Eleven-style gang of jewel thieves featuring, among others, smooth-talking Barack, computer-hacking Michelle, and Sarah Palin, the beautiful brains behind the operation. Barack ultimately decides, in true Hollywood fashion, to "give this president thing a try".

The Ring (Season 13, Episode 1): Another of the show's protagonists, Kenny, takes his new girlfriend, Tammy, to a Jonas Brothers performance, where the pair are encouraged to start wearing purity rings. These rings are soon exposed as a highly profitable marketing tactic dreamt up by a potty-mouthed and megalomaniacal Mickey Mouse -- a way of selling sex to young girls without undermining Disney's reputation as a bastion of Christian, family-friendly morality.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism